Released last week, issue #21 of Green Arrow marks the close of “The Kill Machine”, incoming regular writer Jeff Lemire’s first storyarc with the character. It’s a drug-takey, visionquest of an issue that provides some hard answers to questions around what’s been going on these last few months (since issue #17, when Lemire took the reins), but also provides some key insights into the direction Lemire will be taking with Green Arrow. And more than anything, the concluding chapter to “The Kill Machine” shows us how Lemire is ready to take Oliver Queen’s Green Arrow to an entirely new, Isaac-Newton level of storytelling.
Perhaps the most striking aspect about “The Kill Machine” is Lemire’s facility at avoid milking the golden calf. This is Lemire’s fourth New 52 series (after the super successful Animal Man and Frankenstein, agent of S.H.A.D.E.) and his second high-level reboot (after Justice League Dark). And what stands out most is Lemire’s talent for funding a unique storytelling mode for each of these properties.
Justice League Dark was very much about the fidelity of high-impact storytelling. Coming out of last summer, the Justice League book was about the boldness of fitting Constantine and his motley crew of magickal misfits into the already established tradition (established by Justice League writer Geoff Johns) of the Justice League dealing with the fallout from lost civilizations. In Lemire’s hands the Justice League Dark was all about finding pulp roots for a book that never really had them at all. Frankenstein on the other hand was about the irrational consequence of proto-fascism (born of European idealism) collaborating with and housed within American bureaucracy (still held to be an inoculation against exactly this kind of fascism). It’s the story of the Cold War, but explored with monsters and bureaucracy. And Animal Man? Animal Man’s just Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, but protracted to embroil the non-nuclear family as they find themselves in a media-saturated landscape.
Green Arrow, even from the opening pages of issue #17 was completely different. It was, from boot-up, something that the ‘80s urban action thriller genre would have dearly aspired to in this second decade of the new millennium, had the urban action thriller genre remained culturally legitimate. I want to say, imagine if you will, Dear Reader, the power of Chris Nolan’s the Dark Knight after nothing but Blue Thunder, through Commando, through Heat. Imagine the scale and the grandeur, and the pure magnificence, imagine an entire filmic genre coming into its own simply off of the back of just one film. Green Arrow was a little like that for where the title was by the end of issue #17, versus where it was just one issue prior.
But it’s not that Lemire simply embraced a millennial sensibility upgrade of the urban action thriller, it’s that over the course of the last five months he seeded “The Kill Machine” with mysticism to ensure that this visionquest issue that ends the storyarc also becomes a genetic launchpad for future arcs. Really everything is explained this issue, Oliver’s father, Robert’s, connection to the island Oliver first became the Green Arrow on, Emerson the CEO’s overall jerkiness and his general disdain for Oliver, and even the Green Arrow’s evolution into a legacy hero. And all this leading to the development of an overarching mythic-mystic framework for the character, deeply tied into the warrior psyche of self-reliance that Oliver developed on that island. You’d be hard-pressed not to be more excited about Green Arrow by the end of “the Kill Machine” than by the beginning of it.
A little while ago, Jay Mattson bemoaned the fact that in retooling Marvel’s Hawkeye as The Wire, but with heart, writer Matt Fraction had inadvertently, or perhaps advertently, reproduced the Green Arrow of the ‘70s, who was the social conscience to Green Lantern’s social contract in Green Lantern/Green Arrow. Lemire’s savage insight was not to attempt to compete with that vision and provide fans with a “more authentic” version of the same. Instead Lemire realized Green Arrow could be at his best in a wholly other direction. Straight down the pipe and into the urban action thriller genre. And along the way, evoking shades of Mike Grell’s Green Arrow most likely the most-convincing, definitely the longest-sustained vision off the character.
And it’s really here that the comparison between Lemire and Newton comes into it’s own. There’s an anecdote from Newton’s life, and possibly my favorite anecdote because it has nothing to do with the one that everyone almost universally seems to get wrong. [Sidebar: the apple didn’t actually hit him; Newton was walking at night through an orchard and saw an apple fall to earth and behind it the moon remain aloft. Prompting him to wonder what might cause the apple to fall, and yet allow the moon to remain aloft.]
This anecdote plays out just before Newton steps into greatness, or at least steps into fame. Newton’s a notorious recluse, driven deeper into reclusiveness after having come off socially the poorer after a confrontation with the insidious Robert Hooke. Hooke’s been at it again, claiming to have proven gravity, but none of his mathematics makes any sense. It’s Edmund Halley, of the Halley’s Comet fame, who remembers Newton once in passing having mentioned that he’d worked out the mathematics for gravitation. Halley approaches Newton and Newton, for his sins, fumbles though a pile of papers to be discarded, but can’t find the proof. A few weeks later he hands Halley a pristine copy of the proof. In that sliver of time, Newton had re-proven a theory he hadn’t thought enough of to properly file away in the first place. And that theory was all we needed to put a man on the moon.
That’s Isaac Newton in a nutshell, and an object lesson in where genius can get to, even when it needs to start again from scratch. And that really is the highest compliment I can pay Jeff Lemire.